Wednesday, May 7

The Deluxe Chains Want to Be Chic, Too

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

The battle of hotels to attract business travelers rages on. A suite’s balcony at the InterContinental in San Francisco.

LONG a five-star fuddy-duddy, Le Méridien has entered a more glamorous phase. Flush with cash since 2005 from its new American owners — the Starwood Hotels and Resorts group — and eager to exert its presence beyond the Continent, Le Méridien, a European luxury brand, is moving from stodgy to sexy.

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

A sprayer bath being adjusted in the hotel’s spa.

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

A flat-screen in the bathroom of a suite at the InterContinental.

A “cultural curator,” Jérôme Sans, founder of Paris’s exhibition space Palais de Tokyo, has been retained by the hotel to oversee a range of amenities, including creating programs with six institutions, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Mr. Sans is also developing in-house amenities like business breakfast menus by the celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten; specialty Illy coffee drinks; and a Méridien scent, LM01, by the French perfume company Le Labo.

“We’re trying to create a chic culture of discovery,” said Eva Ziegler, senior vice president for Le Méridien brand, “where the sophistication of artarchitecture and cuisine are available to travelers in a way that is subtle yet refined.”

While its efforts may be aggressive, Le Méridien is hardly the only deluxe chain rolling out amenities to woo coveted business travelers away from artsy independent hotels or ultraluxury brands like the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts or the Ritz-Carlton. In particular, deluxe chains are seeking the loyalty of a younger, more mobile and cosmopolitan — and far more fickle — road warrior, whose appetite for sophistication is equaled by a need for efficiency.

“In the battle to court the business traveler, the amenities wars are alive and well,” said Bill Connors, executive director of the National Business Travel Association in Alexandria, Va.

“Business travelers may still be primarily concerned with convenience and efficiency,” said Scott Berman, hospitality and leisure analyst at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “But these new initiatives help hotel companies build strong brand identities while keeping their business clientele coming back.”

InterContinental Hotels and Resorts, for instance, is adding signature spas, high-wattage chefs and culture-focused concierge floors to its new and newly renovated hotels in London, Boston and San Francisco. Also in London, Hyatt has offered its new hotel brand, Andaz; its first property is decorated by local artwork, and it arranges gallery tours of the East End. Westin continues to add “lifestyle” offerings, including in-room aromatherapy and concierge-led jogs.

Marriott, meanwhile, is beginning a partnership with the boutique hotel pioneer Ian Schrager to develop the Edition brand, with restaurants, bars and spas in both resorts and major business centers worldwide. Morgans Hotel Group — which Mr. Schrager founded in 1984 — is also building city-center hotels in New York, Miami and Chicago with strong art and design elements. And in Asia, the regional hotel leader Shangri-La has created the CHI spa brand, which is in 20 properties worldwide.

Even the lower-priced players are trying to lure the corporate “creative” class: Starwood will introduce its first Aloft property in July in Lexington, Mass., followed by one in Beijing in time for the Olympics. Starwood’s own team created the Aloft look in collaboration withDavid Rockwell, the New York architect. In March, the three-star Motel 6 chain revealed its Phoenix room prototype, which the company says will usher in a European sense of comfort to this market.

“At all levels — but especially at the high end — many hotels just feel fancy rather than well designed,” said Henry H. Harteveldt, vice president for travel at Forrester Research in San Francisco, who added that it was time for luxury hotel leaders like Ritz-Carlton to start playing catch-up. “They’re overdone simply for the sake of being overdone.”

And “overdone” is the last thing business travelers like Nathalie Harrison of London want. As Motorola’s director of communications for Europe, the Middle East and Asia, Ms. Harrison travels 10 days each month throughout these regions, staying mostly in Shangri-La, Westin and InterContinental hotels.

“Most of the time these brands are concentrated in the exact same locations,” she said, “so it is the little things that make me choose where to stay: Westin’s focus on fitness and spa in Europe, Shangri-La’s food offerings in Dubai, in-the-know concierges at InterContinental.”

Thomas Fils, a pharmaceuticals brand manager who travels twice a month, said, “I want to know I can stay in the hotel and still find a stylish bar or restaurant, especially in smaller cities with less vibrant culinary scenes.”

Josef Woodman, a North Carolina publisher who travels on business, said he wanted his spa services in-house. “I recently spent an hour stuck in traffic looking for a spa in Kuala Lumpur that was only a few blocks away,” he said.

Helping to keep travelers like Mr. Fils and Mr. Woodman from leaving their hotels — while luring locals to their new spas, restaurants and bars — is how the major chains intend to make their latest ventures profitable.

To ensure that their amenities deliver the best returns, InterContinental, Hyatt and Le Méridien interviewed thousands of guests. “We spoke to them at home, on the road, we even flew with them on business trips,” said Rajesh Bilimoria, a principal at Continuum Innovation Consultancy, a Boston group that polled travelers worldwide for InterContinental. One constant response was the desire to experience better services while benefiting from the perks of a major chain, like loyalty programs.

Le Méridien’s new design and cultural attractions are making business travelers like Ms. Harrison take a second look. “A few years ago, I thought the brand a bit tired,” Ms. Harrison said. “But they are clearly trying to woo back travelers such as myself. It’s working. They got my attention.”

via NY times

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